Meet Them Where They Are

So, the posts you have been waiting for — my reports from the YALSA Lit Symposium, November 5 – 7, 2010. Let’s start with the preconference!

Meet Them Where They Are & Open The Door: Urban Teens, Street Lit, and Readers Advisory

Preconference, YALSA Lit Symposium, November 5: Megan Honig, Beth Saxton, Sofia Quintero

“Street Lit” can be scary for those who are not familiar with it – and for those who are familiar with it, inspiring a “my kid is reading WHAT” reaction.

Before recapping the preconference, I’ll just point out the various designations people use: Street Lit, Urban Lit, Hip Hop Lit. From “Street Fiction is dedicated to reviewing street fiction, also known as urban fiction, street lit, or gangsta fiction. One of the fastest growing genres, these books expose the reader to drugs, violence, sex and and the gritty realities of street life in urban America.”

Saxton began with a discussion about what, exactly, does “urban teens” mean? Is “urban” a place (a densely populated city center) or is it cultural, with “urban” being a style? With the expansion of the term to be something that reflects pop culture, not a geographical region, the definition now opens up to include such things as music and fashion. Saxton also noted that some use the term “urban” to avoid saying “black,” adding a whole new level of assumptions about who listens to and reads urban culture.

The myth may be “these kids don’t read,” but Street Lit’s popularity shows that teens are reading. Can they find the books they want to read at your library? And does your library have the title awareness to buy the books they want?

Honig (who has a book out about this topic, see links at the end of this post) explained why Street Lit matters even if the books are not “young adult books,” that is, books designated as “young adult” by publishers. Honig noted that when teen librarians are asked for Street Lit, they tend to give the reader something else instead.  Our mission, she reminded us, is to meet the needs of all our patrons. Street Lit meets those needs.

Honig acknowledged the concerns that adults may have, such as the scary things that, frankly, we wish teens didn’t know about. She asked the audience to remember to balance those concerns with what is good and valuable about Street Lit.

When talking about the needs and wants that Street Lit meets, Honig gave several examples based on her own surveys of teen readers of Street Lit. As I listened to Honig, I thought about how the reasons are varied, honest, and reflect not just why these teens read these books – they could easily apply to other books, other entertainment, other genres.

  •  It’s not just kids from the backgrounds depicted in the books reading these books.
  • “Better them than me.”
  • “Sometimes, they want to be reading something bad about people”.
  • Contemporary references to music, fashion, books, celebrities
  • “Different readers come to book differently.”
  • Affirmation of identity
  • Reflection of lived experiences
  • Engagement at a safe distance
  • Entertainment
  • Wish fulfillment
  • Voyeurism
  • Risk free thrill
  • Just because they are reading it doesn’t mean they are doing it.

Honig then turned our attention to what librarians (and others!) do with the teen Street Lit reader: offering them substitutes instead of what they are asking for, which may as well be telling them “no.” Just because a book is set in a city – just because it’s about people who are black – just because it is about people who are at a lower socioeconomic status – doesn’t mean that book is “Street Lit.” The primary differences between Street Lit and the substitutes are the ending (YA books tend to have either a happy or hopeful ending); pacing (YA substitutes have slower pacing, less action, and more character introspection); and how “naughty” they are in terms of subject matter.

There are crossover titles, so what the librarian needs to know is why the reader wants Street Lit to match the reader with a book.  Does the reader want something that is fast paced? Matter of fact about sex and violence? External action? An immediate hook? A conversational tone?

When the reading needs of teens are met, they will read. The more they read, the more their reading skills improve, which leads to better reading and more reading as well as a sense of accomplishment and the start of identifying oneself as “a reader.”

Honig then discussed Readers Advisory, the art of recommending books and matching books and readers. It’s about respecting the readers’ tastes and also being able to identify the appeal of books: pacing, characterization, story line, frame. By looking at those areas, better recommendations can be made to readers, both inside and outside of their usual genre.

As an example for such Readers Advisory with Street Lit: someone who reads Street Lit because “bad things happen,” would like “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott. Those who like adventures? Recommend spy thrillers and crime stories. With a laugh, Honig reminded the audience that “Gossip Girl and Street Lit have a lot in common.”

Saxton shared fun ways to connect books with teens. Book discussions don’t have to be what you find in adult book discussion groups; it can be a “Snack and Yack,” with teens talking about the books they like. A “Book Speed Dating” program was described, with teens getting the chance to find out about lots of books quickly with no pressure to select any one book – and also having the opportunity to select all. One of my favorites was offering readers a “Personalized Summer Reading List”: the reader answers five questions, Saxton provides ten suggestions. Saxton then went into her “30 Books in 30 Minutes,” quickly and enthusiastically providing a variety of titles using quick “hooks” to attract readers.

Sofia Quintero spoke next. She is the author of the young adult book, Efrain’s Secret, but also writes Feminist Hip Hop Noir. She’s an educator, an activist, a novelist, an “Ivy League homegirl”. Quintero spoke frankly about how some people really hate Street Lit, and her own journey to embracing the genre by using it to write books that are feminist and raise social and political issues. She can meet people where they are and take them somewhere different. She wanted to write the books she wanted to read – “a girl in the hood but not of the hood.”

Quintero read aloud from her young adult book, “Efrain’s Secret,” noting that “reading aloud is a profound act of joy some teens and kids don’t get.”

Quintero noted the misogynism found in some Street Lit and the gratuitous violence. She notes that some people defend it as “keeping it real,” but asks, “what if what is real has to change? What if we want to change what’s real?” That is what Quintero does with her books, and notes that as a Hip Hop Feminist/Activist she goes to the location of her activism, pushing the conversation into the Hip Hop community.  Street Lit can also be a bridge to expanding reading choices.

Several interesting observations were made about censorship. Quintero takes offense that saying “we need books with positive images” means “white middle class suburbs”, thus erasing the positive people in her community like her mother, a hard working immigrant with a third grade education. “How can you say, don’t tell a story because I don’t want to hear about it”?

Since teens identify with what they like, when an adult says “I don’t like what you read/ listen to/ watch,” the teen hears “you don’t like me.” Have the conversations, be honest, and be aware.

Quintero offered some Readers Advisory programs, including “Judge a Book by Its Cover.” Just look at the jacket cover. Do you want to read it? Now, read the jacket copy. Have you changed your mind? Take two minutes to start reading the book. Have you changed your mind?

Links & Resources:

Megan Honig’s website, including this month’s 30 Days of Street Lit 

Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit by Megan Honig, Libraries Unlimited 2010 

Sofia Quintero’s website, my review of her book Efrain’s Secret, and my interview with Quintero

YALSA Blog Interview with Saxton and Honig 

YALSA Blog Recap of the Preconference

Resources provided by Honig via Comment at YALSA Blog Recap:

   “Corrections librarian Daniel Marcou posts book synopses for street fiction titles, and readers comment with reviews. The site is searchable by author, publisher, and subject.”

            Library Journal’s “Word on Street Lit” monthly column

            Reader’s Advisory Guide To Street Lit by Vanessa Morris

A big thanks to RIF who made my attendance at the Symposium possible.


One thought on “Meet Them Where They Are

  1. Thanks for this recap

    Author Wahida Clark will be releasing a YA line in 2011.
    To me Street Lit and Urban lit are interchangeable. Its not a genre I read but like any popluar genre I know what sells and Clark is a bestselling author. I like the idea of having more street lit that is geared for teen readers.

    George Nelson as a memoir out called City Kid, that has a lot of teen crossover appeal.


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